State Court Jurisdiction

(Page 2 of 2 of Subject Matter Jurisdiction: Should I File in Federal or State Court? )

State courts almost always have the power to hear cases involving events that took place in the state where the court sits or if defendants reside in or are served with a summons and complaint in that state.

So unless your case involves one of the few types of cases over which federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction (copyright violations, patent infringement, or federal tax claims), the state court in the state in which you live will probably have jurisdiction to hear your case, whether you're seeking an adoption, guardianship, or divorce, suing a landlord or a tenant, have a consumer complaint against a contractor or repair shop, want to go to small claims court, need to probate a will, or are involved in one of the vast variety of other kinds of legal disputes.

Example: Dobbs, a Michigan resident, buys a used car from Rick's Used Cars, a Michigan business. A few weeks later the car breaks down, and Dobbs learns that it needs a new engine. Dobbs sues Rick's Used Cars for fraud and breach of contract in Michigan state court, which has jurisdiction because Rick's is a Michigan business.

Example: Allnut lives in Arizona and is involved in a traffic accident in Arizona with Marlowe, a Texas resident. Allnut could file a lawsuit in Arizona state court, which would have jurisdiction because the accident took place there. (Every state has a "motorist" law that confers jurisdiction on its state courts to hear cases involving all traffic accidents occurring in that state.) Allnut could also file suit in Texas, where Marlowe resides, because state courts almost always have jurisdiction to hear cases filed against defendants who live in the state. (However, Allnut could not file the lawsuit in California or Florida in an effort to combine a vacation with legal business. Neither state is the site where traffic accident-related events occurred or the defendant lives.)

Example: Elaine, a New York citizen, sues Officer Kramer (also a New York citizen) for violating her civil rights by falsely arresting her. Elaine bases the suit on a federal statute, 42 United States Code Sec. 1983, and asks for damages of $10,000. A New York federal court has the power to hear Elaine's case. Because the case is based on (arises under) a federal statute, the New York federal court has jurisdiction even though Elaine and Officer Kramer are citizens of the same state and Elaine seeks less than $75,000. Alternatively, Elaine could file the lawsuit in New York state court, which would have power to hear the case because the arrest occurred in New York and both Elaine and Officer Kramer live there. The state court has "concurrent jurisdiction" with the federal court and enforces the federal law as it would a state law. Elaine can go "forum shopping" between New York federal and state court.

Dual Jurisdiction: When You Can File in Federal or State Court

Most lawsuits that can be filed in federal district court can also be filed in state court. Federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction only in a very few kinds of federal question cases, such as lawsuits involving copyright violations, patent infringement, or federal tax claims.

This means that plaintiffs in all diversity jurisdiction cases and nearly all federal question cases have a choice of suing in federal or state court. Lawyers call the process of deciding which court is best for a plaintiff's case "forum shopping."

For example, a plaintiff who has a choice of courts may consider such factors as:

  • Which courthouse is closer to the plaintiff's place of work and business? For example, a plaintiff may choose to file in a state court simply because the nearest federal court is 250 miles away.
  • Which court has a longer statute of limitations? A plaintiff who has missed the filing deadline under state law would surely choose to file suit in federal district court if federal law provided a longer statute of limitations. (This is true only for federal question cases. Federal courts use a state's statute of limitations in a diversity jurisdiction case.)
  • Differences in the judges. For instance, a plaintiff may think that local state court judges have a judicial philosophy that makes them more likely to sympathize with the plaintiff's claim.
  • Differences in the jury panel. State and federal courts may have different boundaries for jury selection purposes, and a plaintiff may, for example, file suit in federal court because it selects jurors from a wider geographic area.

Tip Consult a legal coach for advice on forum shopping. Many subtle factors can affect forum shopping. If you have a choice of courts, it would be wise to consult with a legal coach who has experience in both federal and state courts.

(For information on personal jurisdiction, see Nolo's article Personal Jurisdiction: In Which Court Can I Sue the Defendant?)

For a comprehensive guide that breaks down the trial process into easy-to-understand steps so that you can act safely and efficiently as your own lawyer, get Represent Yourself in Court: How to Prepare & Try a Winning Case, by Paul Bergman and Sara Berman (Nolo).

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